No Choice. No Voice.

– Showing up for Democracy’s Sake –

Recently, US Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina cast the deciding vote* confirming Betsy Davos for Secretary of Education. I could not help but notice that Tillis ran unopposed for most of his political career.

According to Wikipedia: “Tillis ran for the General Assembly in 2006. He defeated incumbent John W. Rhodes in the Republican primary, and went on to win the election, since no other candidate had filed in the general election. Tillis ran unopposed in three subsequent reelection bids, in 2008, 2010 and 2012.” He became a US Senator in 2014, winning 49% of the vote in a 3-way race. He has never won an absolute majority in a contested general election. But this is not so rare, as it turns out. Tillis is not unusual.

1 in 4 US Senators (24 out of 100) have run unopposed in their careers.

1 in 5 US congressmen (19% of the 435 in the 115th session) have run unopposed in their careers.

While we need to end gerrymandering and voter suppression that lead to “safe seats,” democracy also needs to provide voters with real choices.

Whether talking about American politics or international aid, there can be no real voice without real choice.

This is why we at Keystone believe involving citizens in local government matters. Leaders who learn to implement a monolithic agenda without being challenged – whether local city council members, state representatives, or development practitioners – grow up to be the very leaders that rule with little respect for dissenting opinions.

Why should the American people expect someone like Tillis to suddenly be responsive to the public in 2017 when he’s had a decade of learning through experience that “the people” are apathetic? No one even challenged him for nearly a decade. Democracy requires that its leaders be challenged and tested, in order for their vision to reflect our vision of the future. When elections don’t field two candidates in a race, we ensure that weak, untested leaders will continue to rise.

We should thank every tired overworked soccer mom or dad that gets involved in local politics at any level. It is often the mothers with half a dozen kids that I see showing up to give voice at the local level outside the US – when I know they would probably prefer an extra 30 minutes of sleep or a moment off their feet. Those who take on an unopposed candidate in an election, especially when winning is not realistic, are strengthening democracy more than we can imagine. It’s not the time you have, but the priorities you set with the time you have, that builds a society that can, in the words of the US Constitution, “promote the general welfare”.

The person who might break the next 50-50 tie could be sitting on your city council, ignored and unopposed.

Or it could be you.

* Technically, every vote was the “deciding vote” because it was 51 to 50. But Tillis was rumored to be the Senator most contacted by the public nation-wide to switch sides – the last “on the fence” vote. Reporters claim Vice President Pence cast the deciding vote because he voted last, but his position was never in question. Had Tillis changed his vote, Pence wouldn’t have voted at all and couldn’t overrule him.

** The relationship between choice and voice has been tackled in a more nuanced way by Albert O. Hirshman (1970). We must remind ourselves of his lessons in light of the current political shifts.

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